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Thoughts on Nelson Mandela by a Former Resident of South Africa

Thursday 12 December 2013, 10:18
By Derek Hudson

Nelson Mandela was a truly great man on the world stage, someone with strongly held principles who used his humility and gentleness to disarm his political opponents. He was a skilled negotiator who took great trouble never to demean the people he was negotiating with.

He was indirectly assisted by an important South African official statistic. For as long as I can remember, South Africa has had a substantial deficit on the current account of the balance of payments, year in and year out. South Africa habitually imports much more each year than it exports.

This chronic arrangement would long ago have been financially unstable if it were not for the fact that wealthy foreign investors, particularly in the USA, have habitually made equally large annual investments into South Africa. The annual capital inflows have neatly balanced the annual current account outflows, year after year.

Eventually, it was the threat that foreign investors, lead by the USA and supported by British investors like Barclays Bank, were planning to stop their annual capital investments into South Africa, much more than resolutions at the United Nations and the gigantic anti-apartheid protest meetings in Hyde Park, London, that convinced President De Klerk that apartheid had to be scrapped.

Nelson Mandela grabbed the opportunity and prevented South Africa from descending into a civil war. Then he started his policy of racial reconciliation, ably assisted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that was so remarkably successful. Mandela persuaded his fellow black ANC members to turn the other cheek. The majority of black South Africans followed his lead and made a huge effort to forgive white South Africa for the oppression of blacks since the original white settlement at the Cape in 1652.

After the National Party's victory at the general election in 1948, the apartheid policy was merely the tightening of the long standing political screw. Ironically, apartheid was 'justified' by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, to the acute embarrassment of the parent Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands (in 1972, the South African Dutch Reformed Church made a U-turn. The DRC declared apartheid to be a sin).

A mild criticism is that Nelson Mandela failed to adequately recognise the significance of the outbreak of HIV in South Africa, in spite of the death of one of his own sons from AIDS; he failed to try to influence Thabo Mbeki to accept the abundant medical evidence that the matter should be treated as a matter of priority. On the other hand, I have a theory that the ever modest Mandela was in a way grateful for this relatively minor lapse because it allowed him to retire from office knowing that his successors would not be over-awed by his otherwise faultless reputation.

I am embarrassed by the amount of racial favouritism I enjoyed during my youth in Cape Town, growing up as a South African 'wasp'. There were not only privileges in favour of white boys, there was also a certain amount of anti-Jewish prejudice. This was evidenced by my parents' membership of the up-market Kelvin Grove country club in Cape Town, which did not accept Jews; and the secret annual quota of the small number of Jewish boys that were allowed in each year at my fee-paying (whites only) secondary school in Rondebosch, Cape Town, by some accounts one of the top boys' schools in South Africa.

As a teenager, I was struck by the fact that if I wanted to buy a stamp, I had no option but to enter the post office through the 'whites only' entrance. If I went into a small general dealer's shop, there was sometimes a short queue for white customers to pay for their shopping before the long queue of non-white customers was served. At the Anglican Church in Pinelands, Cape Town, where I was an altar boy, black communicants sat at the back of the church and only took communion after the white congregation. (The Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches were in advance of the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church, which had separate churches for non white Christians).

Later on at the University of Cape Town in 1957, I made a small protest by helping to organise the university's first ever multi-racial student dance on the campus. A Question was immediately asked in parliament by a back bench National Party Member of Parliament. I and the other two organisers of the dance were nearly expelled for our trouble.

I once made an equally minute protest against racial segregation in the USA. Travelling on a Greyhound bus from Laredo, Texas, to New Orleans, Louisiana in 1954, I sat next to a coloured woman, three rows from the front of the bus, behind and next to the other white passengers. There were six empty rows behind me, then five rows of coloured passengers at the back. At the next stop, a white woman got on and stood in the aisle next to me. I refused to stand up or make any other gesture in favour of the idea that the coloured woman next to me should move to the back of the bus. However, she and the other coloured passengers had to go to the back of the store at the bus stop near San Antonio, Texas where we all got off to stretch our legs for a few minutes, because that's where the drinking water for coloured passengers was located.

(*) In 1972, the South African Dutch Reformed Church made a U-turn. The DRC declared apartheid to be a sin.


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